DVD Tuesday: ‘Princess And The Frog’ and ‘Astro Boy’

by W. Andrew Powell

A scene from The Princess and the Frog

A scene from The Princess and the Frog

Arriving this week on store shelves: Disney returns to form with the animated gem, The Princess And The Frog; Astro Boy makes his feature film debut; the vampires and the werewolves fight it out in The Twilight Saga: New Moon; plus a look at Clash Of The Titans and The Neverending Story, which both arrive on Blu-ray.

The Princess And The Frog
Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, John Goodman, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Oprah Winfrey
Director: John Musker, Ron Clements

There was a time, one that frequent readers will understand I’m often reminiscent of, when Disney was at the top of their game, releasing animated classics that have earned a place in many, many homes over the years. Since the 1990s though, Pixar has stolen most of the thunder from their parent company, which is exactly why The Princess And The Frog is such a wonderful surprise, proving once more that Disney still has what it takes to make enduring classics.

Written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who previously made The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, The Princess And The Frog is a return to form for Disney, offering an age-old tale that has been updated to exist perfectly inside the city of New Orleans.

Living within the culture of New Orleans, the film features the voice of Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, a hardworking girl who wants to achieve her father’s dream of opening a fancy restaurant in the heart of the city. Living in the same house where she grew up, Tiana has been saving since her childhood, but she still seems a long way from realizing her dream. Her life suddenly looks like it is about to change, however, when the young and handsome Prince Naveen, voiced by Bruno Campos, arrives in town.

With the town preparing for Mardi Gras, and Tiana’s best friend throwing a gala party for the Prince, one fiendish witch doctor, voiced by the great Keith David, schemes his way into turning the prince into a frog. His plans start to go awry when the Prince escapes in his froggy form and the young Tiana gives him a kiss. Since Tiana isn’t a princess though, she ends up turning into a frog too, setting off a chase across the Bayou that everyone hopes will end in one marriage, or another.

Executive produced by Pixar’s great John Lasseter, The Princess And The Frog is unequivocally one of the best animated films of last year, and also one of Disney’s best films in three decades. Ranking right up there with Musker and Clements’ previous work, the film is a hilarious romp through the south, with loads of heart, and a fantastic collection of songs by Randy Newman.

Featuring the wonderful voice work of Rose, Campos, David, plus John Goodman, and Jim Cummings, the film is well worth picking up on DVD or Blu-ray, and parents will have no problem enjoying the film right beside their little ones.

Although this is a bit early to say, I also hope The Princess And The Frog signals a brand new era of classics from the House of Mouse.

Astro Boy
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy
Director: David Bowers

For as long as there have been stories there have been tales of creatures, made by humans, looking for acceptance and some hint that they are in fact somewhat human themselves. Whether you’re talking about Pinocchio, Frankenstein’s monster, or any number of other stories, the concept is remarkably similar, but none pull our heartstrings quite as much as the idea of a child-like creation.

With its roots in anime and manga, Astro Boy is perhaps one of the best modern examples of the fable, and with its origins set in the 1950s, it was probably overdue for its feature film debut.

Set in the futuristic realm of Metro City, Freddie Highmore voices the young Astro Boy, a robot created by the genius Dr. Tenma, voiced by Nicolas Cage. Powered by positive blue energy, Astro Boy is super-strong, super-fast, has x-ray vision, and of course, he can fly. But with all that power he wonders what it’s really like to be human, and what part he’s supposed to play in the world, which sets him off on a journey that will ultimately make him the hero of his city.

Reviewers were mixed down the middle for the film. Des Partridge of Australia’s Courier Mail wrote, “The feature-length film, modelled on Pixar films, merges the best of western and eastern animation styles. [The] result is an entertaining film that should satisfy both adults and children.”

Dan Jolin of Empire Magazine was otherwise not as pleased. “Aside from a few neat flourishes, this is attention-sapping stuff, lacking texture in both its visuals and vocal performances.”

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Dakota Fanning
Director: Chris Weitz

Vampires were once frightening creatures that only lurked in horror movies, but between novelist Stephenie Meyer and her moviemaking pals, Hollywood has found a way of turning these dark, blood-sucking creatures of the night into fodder for teen audiences, and to say that these fans have gone crazy for Bella and Edward would be an obvious understatement.

Debuting on DVD and Blu-ray this Saturday, March 20, we catch up with Bella Swan, played once more by Kristen Stewart, as she tries to drag herself through her now desperately sad life after Edward the vampire, played by the dreamy Robert Pattinson, picked up and left town to protect her from more blood-sucking drama. More drama awaits her though since Bella doesn’t immediately realize that the local Quileute tribe of hot young men, including Jacob (Taylor Lautner), are hiding a dark side: they can turn into oversized wolves at the drop of a hat.

As she gets closer to Jacob, and learns about the werewolves, Bella also learns about the real reason that Edward left her behind, and now she hopes for some kind of reunion, but the truth is that it may not be the one she has dreamed about.

Surely, if you made it through that description you’re a big enough fan to enjoy the film, so don’t let me stop you, but the critics have lots to say about the sequel, and very little of it is good.

Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wrote in his mostly-positive review, “The stakes are higher and the intensity deeper this time, despite a plot that approaches the ripest of melodrama – and which occasionally provokes unintended laughter, as does the terribly twee soundtrack.”

At the same time Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who actually gave the first film a decent review, railed against New Moon. “The Twilight Saga: New Moon takes the tepid achievement of Twilight, guts it, and leaves it for undead.”

Clash Of The Titans
Starring: Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Ursula Andress, Maggie Smith, Judi Bowker
Director: Desmond Davis

Coming out on Blu-ray nearly 30 years after it first debuted in theatres, director Desmond Davis’ Clash Of The Titans is a timeless action adventure that is wonderful to behold, even if the special effects are sometimes giggle-inducing.

Harry Hamlin stars as the hero Perseus, the half-human son of Zeus who gets caught in a squabble between the goddess Hera, Cassiopeia, and his own Olympian father. When Cassiopeia compares her daughter Andromeda’s beauty to that of Hera, the vengeful god tells the city that they must sacrifice Andromeda to the monster known as the Craken or face their city’s destruction.

Having already fallen in love with Andromeda, Perseus sets out on an adventure to save her, and defeat the Craken once and for all.

Starring Harry Hamlin as Perseus, Laurence Olivier as Zeus, and Judi Bowker as Andromeda, to name a few, the film and its cast more than lives up to the challenge of bringing life to these legendary tales of heroes and gods.

What will throw many viewers off are the special effects, which for the time must have been difficult to complete, but today, and in the pristine clarity of Blu-ray, make the film look a bit funny. The claymation monsters are actually still pretty good, but often the biggest problem are the actors who have been dropped into fake backgrounds and look like they have been pasted into some scenes with glue.

Heralding the remake that comes out later this year, the original Clash Of The Titans is worth a watch, especially if you want an example of great storytelling as we face a summer that’s bound to be knee-deep with poorly written sequels and reimaginings.

The Neverending Story
Starring: Barret Oliver, Noah Hathaway, Tami Stronach, Moses Gunn
Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Lastly, Wolfgang Petersen’s beloved film, The Neverending Story, also arrives on Blu-ray this week. In contrast to Clash Of The Titans, this is a film that still has all of its original charm intact, all the way from the story to the special effects, which at the time were cutting edge and utterly dreamlike in their execution.

For parents and the rest of us who grew up with this film on video tape, this is a great time to check the film out again as it looks tremendous on Blu-ray. Likewise, this is a great film to introduce to a whole new generation of kids, who may scoff at some elements of the film, but will no doubt enjoy the inspiring story.

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